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UW–Madison Online graduates Manny Avila and Erin Vranas stand on either side of Bucky Badger flashing the "W" with their fingers. Manny, on left, has dark hair and glasses and is wearing his graduation cap and gown. Erin, on right, is wearing a white sleeveless top and has long blonde hair.

Photos: Celebrating UW–Madison Online’s first-ever grads

(Above) UW–Madison Online graduates Manny Avila, left, and Erin Varnas, celebrate with Bucky after earning their Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degrees in management.

By all indications, the May 11, 2024, event looked like a traditional University of Wisconsin–Madison commencement celebration. Bucky Badger posed with graduates clad in caps and gowns. “On, Wisconsin” and “Jump Around” played from the sound system. Smiling friends and family members cheered as their graduates walked across the stage.

But these graduates were anything but traditional, and the event represented a much-anticipated first for UW–Madison.

The graduates who gathered together that morning were among the 29 comprising the inaugural class of UW–Madison Online, a fully online bachelor’s degree completion program designed for people who have earned some college credits.

Launched in February 2020, UW–Madison Online increases access to the university for students who can’t attend in person and want to balance work, family or other obligations.

The program currently offers three bachelor’s degree programs from the Wisconsin School of Business in human resources, management and marketing. Students can also earn an online bachelor’s in nursing through the BSN@Home program.

UW–Madison Online students embark on a unique journey, bringing a wealth of life experience and exceptional circumstances. Many are older than traditional university students; some have been out of college for over a decade. Completing their degrees requires discipline and determination as students must balance coursework with other responsibilities, including full-time jobs, families, military service and personal challenges.

Check out some photos from this unprecedented celebration and a few of the UW–Madison Online graduates who were on hand to enjoy well-deserved accolades.

Graduates, family, friends and university staff gathered at UW–Madison’s Gordon Dining Hall & Event Center for breakfast, a recognition ceremony, family photos, high fives, warm hugs — and plenty of celebration.

In the ceremony’s opening remarks, Dean of Continuing Studies and Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning Dr. Jeffrey Russell expressed his excitement about celebrating graduates on a day that had been “a long time coming.” He noted that implementing the UW–Madison Online program had been a long and winding road. The graduation event represented a significant milestone for the university and the access it would provide to adult learners. He congratulated graduates and their families and friends who supported them. “Be proud and excited about what you have accomplished.”

Dr. Maya Evans, associate dean and director of online undergraduate degrees, assured the graduates that they were earning their degrees “right on time.” She continued, “Today is not better late than never. Nor is it a dream deferred. Today should not have come yesterday or 15 years ago because your story was meant to happen today.”

Office of Online Student Success Director Karen Thomas (shown above) and Academic and Career Advisor Leanne Johnson (shown in final photo with Manny Avila, below) announced the graduates and presented gifts. “On behalf of the Office of Online Student Success, congratulations, graduates!” said Thomas. “We are excited to have the opportunity to recognize you individually.”

Graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree in management, Manny Avila (center, with family members) said of the event, “I had no idea that I was going to see so many familiar faces, especially for an online program. But this is so very exciting.” Nodding to his son, who sat smiling in the audience, Avila said, “Most importantly, I want to acknowledge that he is my main motivation.”

Erin Vranas, also graduating with a BBA in management, thanked the university for creating an online degree program that fit her lifestyle. “I don’t know how I would have continued doing this in person,” she said. “I’m really blessed because this wasn’t just theory for me. I have a couple of businesses, and I was able to directly apply everything that I was learning.”

Graduating with a BBA in marketing, Troy Markinkovic marveled at the opportunity to meet his fellow online students in person. “How cool is this program that I can sit in a room with so many people who have the same sort of experience that I did,” he said. “We’re part of a pioneering cohort of lifelong learners, and I’m just so proud to be part of that group. On, Wisconsin!”

“If you had asked me at any point in my life if I’d be here today, I would have said there’s no possible way,” said graduate Kristy Jorgensen, shown here with her family. She noted that life happens, and her dream of finishing her degree went away for a while, but with the help of family and UW–Madison Online staff, her dream came true. She encouraged others, quoting Milton Berle: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”

John Gloeckler started his comments by thanking the university “for putting together a program that didn’t cut any corners and enabled a nontraditional student to come back and finish. A lot of empathy goes into that, and it’s greatly appreciated.” After thanking family and friends for their support, Gloeckler shared that others had asked him why it was important to finish his degree and what he would do next. “I don’t know what it’s going to get me,” he said, “but I do know where it’s goingto get me and that’s forward. And forward is a great place to be. On, Wisconsin!”

Congratulations to these and all UW–Madison Online graduates! We can’t wait to see what these Badgers do next.

Check out more photos from our graduation event below. Visit UW–Madison Online to read more student stories and learn about our online degree programs.